Saturday, November 18, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) in SPOILERVISION

It's not that bad as a whole, but to be honest, the first half-hour of Zack Snyder's new film, with credited co-writing and uncredited reshoots by Joss Whedon, is awful: a jumble of scenes attempting to establish an important trait of parademons (the bug-winged creatures Batman [Ben Affleck] saw in his Dawn of Justice nightmare); remind us urgently that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) exists; and remind us more clumsily that the world is worse for the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in the aforementioned Snyder production. Nothing really flows together and you might believe that several films, not just the Snyder and Whedon footage, had been awkwardly spliced into something crudely approximating a feature film. Nor are things helped much by the introduction of the film's villain. Steppenwolf, here embarking on his second stab at world conquest after millennia of dormancy, is a relatively minor character in Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" mythos, which few at DC Comics have really known what to do with since the King laid down his pencil. His presence here looks like a hedging of bets, as if Snyder, co-writer Chris Terrio and DC producer Geoff Johns didn't want to waste Kirby's actual big bad, the oft-misused Darkseid, on this particular movie and chose Steppenwolf as his proxy. No effort was made to give this substitute villain any personality beyond his generic lust for conquest, but I suppose you could argue that the villain of this piece was never meant to be anything more than a Macguffin, since the real story of Justice League is the formation of DC's in-print precursor and cinematic answer to Marvel's Avengers. Picking up the hints dropped like anchors in the last film, Batman and Wonder Woman set out to recruit the three supposed superbeings discovered by Lex Luthor's researchers: Arthur "The Aquaman" Curry (Jason Momoa), the bastard child of Atlantean royalty and quite the strongman on land; Barry "Flash" Allen (Ezra Miller), the young Central City speedster; and Victor "Cyborg" Stone (Ray Fisher), a man now more than half machine desperately trying to keep up with his evolving alien technology. The real purpose of this movie is to get you interested enough in these three to seek out their solo films as they appear, beginning with next year's Aquaman.

The results are mixed. All three actors succeeded in making their characters interesting, and they establish decent chemistry with each other and the established heroes. But I still question whether any of them can carry a feature film by today's standard of what such films should be. The future of the DC movie franchise now rests on the shoulders of Jason Momoa, and I'm glad to report that, liberated from his grim typecasting, the actor gives easily the best performance I've ever seen from him. But I still doubt whether whatever good will he's earned will make people interested in exploring DC's Atlantis, all too little of which was shown here apart from introducing Aquaman's eventual love interest Mera (Amber Heard). As Cyborg, Ray Fisher does probably as good as anyone could do with Marv Wolfman's character, making him sardonically bitter rather than self-pitying and adding a certain coldness that inclines the character to agree with Batman much of the time. But Cyborg has always been a hard sell as the black face of the DC Comics universe since Geoff Johns gave him that role by putting the character in his "New 52" era Justice League. Popular though he may be as one of Wolfman and George Perez's Teen Titans, Cyborg never seems to have clicked as a solo character despite Johns and other writers' stubborn efforts, and he has so little personal mythos that I find myself wondering what on earth a Cyborg movie would be about. Meanwhile, the development of a Flash movie is an ongoing nightmare for Warner Bros. Laboring in the shadow of the popular CW TV series, which automatically begs that question of what a feature film can do differently other than spend more money, the project can't hold on to a director as everyone struggles to fine-tune the property. The one thing different about Miller's Flash so far is his relative youth and his jittery Spider-Manic personality that makes him Justice League's comedy relief character. I thought Miller was likable enough to get away with it here, but I don't know if he can carry his own movie doing the same stuff. I'd be happy to see all of these guys again in another Justice League film, but despite this film's post-credit scene there are no immediate plans for another that I know of, and the drubbing the film is getting from Snyderphobic reviewers is unlikely to speed the day of their return.

I probably should talk about the story some more. The plot is right out of a serial: an artifact hunt. If Steppenwolf gets all the artifacts he can activate "the Unity," which won't be a good thing for anybody. Despite their being salted away on Atlantis, Themyscira and ... somewhere Cyborg knows about, he gets them. Fortunately, the good guys had just used that last one to resurrect their old pal Superman who, acting true to comic-book form, starts fighting them until Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows up and tells him that the sun's getting real low, or something along those lines. Honestly, though, even in comics if Superman is messed up and not behaving right, mind-controlled, amnesiac or whatever, Lois is your best antidote. There was this one comic where to snap Superman out of Poison Ivy's mind-control, Batman has Catwoman throw Lois off a building, or at least that's how I remember it. But I digress. Anyway, Supes still needs some work in the shop so Lois takes him back for (ahem) debriefing in Smallville while the rest of the gang goes to some Sokovia-like place where Steppenwolf, his Unity and his army of parademons make life miserable for one humble family -- to, you know, make the situation more real for us, I guess. Determined that this shall not stand, the as-yet-unnamed Justice League -- I think the only person who actually describes them as a "league" is Lex Luthor (our old friend Jesse Eisenberg) in a post-credits secene -- go about delaying the bad guy until Superman is cleared for action, after which point there's really no contest.

Sounds stupid, right? Well, it kind of is, but while this is regrettably one of those films where the whole is less than the sum of its parts, a lot of those parts are quite entertaining. While Fisher, Miller and Momoa held up their end of the deal, Affleck, Cavill and Gadot were once more their reliable selves, though our Batman is much more mild-mannered than in his last appearance, to a degree that's left some again questioning his commitment to the franchise. I actually liked the change of pace and the way some things (like Bruce Wayne's whiskey-swilling) remained the same. So the acting was fine, apart from the helpless Ciaran Hinds, tasked with voicing Steppenwolf. As one might expect from Zack Snyder, some of the action is spectacular. The highlights include an extended battle on Themyscira as the Amazons run a desperate relay race to keep their artifact from Steppenwolf; a flashback establishing Steppenwolf's backstory featuring a super-epic battle pitting Amazons, Atlanteans, Olympian gods, Green Lanterns, etc. against old-timey parademons; and the guilty pleasure of the JL's brawl with the reawakened Superman, who seems capable of matching the Flash's speed (Miller sells this wonderfully) and trading head-butts with Wonder Woman all day. For all its many flaws, the film ultimately entertains. I'd reverse the conventional reviewer consensus and contend that Justice League is marginally worse than Dawn of Justice, and almost the weakest of this year's good crop of superhero movies -- after a second viewing of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I'm inclined to leave that at the bottom. Snyder and Whedon have done Warner Bros. no great favors as far as Friday morning reviewers are concerned, but I close with the observation that at my half-full multiplex screening the audience applauded the film.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

On the Big Screen: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

After an unlikely period as a director of high-profile tentpole pictures -- Thor, Jack Ryan, Cinderella -- Kenneth Branagh returns to more personal filmmaking with this new adaptation of Agatha Christie's beloved novel, previously filmed to great effect by Sidney Lumet in 1974. It's a more personal picture this time because, unlike those recent efforts, this one stars Kenneth Branagh, following in the prominent footsteps of Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov, and the deeper tracks of David Suchet, by taking on the role of Christie's fussy Belgian, Hercule Poirot. For that you need an accent and a moustache. Branagh's Poirot accent -- I don't know whether it can be described accurately as a Belgian accent -- is at least superior to his attempts at an American accent; he's one of the few British actors who can't really do that well. It's with the moustache that Branagh really tries to differentiate himself from past Poirots. Certainly the preemptive favorite for the Best Moustache Oscar, should that category suddenly come into being, it's big, brown and bristly where the typical Poirot look is small, black and oily. As the years tell on the former boy-wonder actor-director, you wonder sometimes whether this is a Poirot mystery or The Sam Elliott Story. Ultimately, however, there's no mistaking the familiar story of a murder with a seemingly ever-expanding number of likely suspects, and if you've seen the Lumet movie (I have) or read the Christie original (I haven't) the only suspense the new film offers is whether Branagh's writer, Michael Green -- who was very busy this year with Wolverine, Alien and Blade Runner sequels -- would dare change Christie's ending. Spoiler alert: he doesn't.

That leaves it up to Branagh and his cast of actors to make the story fresh in other ways. There are some stabs at progressive casting that let Penelope Cruz and Leslie Odom Jr. into the picture, but only Willem Dafoe as the Pinkerton man (with an extra level of imposture) is arguably an improvement over his 1974 predecessor. The other actors aren't bad, though Michelle Pfeiffer goes maybe too far over the top, but as a director of actors Branagh, for all his Shakespearean experience, is no Sidney Lumet. He proves that further by indulging in overblown camera movements in an effort to give what should be an economically staged story -- apart from the Orient Express's necessarily luxurious furnishings -- a quasi-epic feel. If two characters are chatting in a boxcar, he'll have the camera hovering at some distance, and then he'll have it rise from below, or descend from above. Toward the end he rolls out a long shot following Poirot through a number of train cars, but it only reminds you that he'd done a much more impressive tracking shot in his debut film, Henry V, nearly thirty years ago. He even gives Poirot a Bond-style prologue as a mystery-solving peacemaker in the Old City of Jerusalem, and for all we know, given the nod toward Death on the Nile at the very end, he may have a franchise in mind, if audiences demand it. The theater where I saw the film is a neighborhood arthouse where the audience skews older, and there was a healthy crowd for a second matinee on a cold November afternoon, but I doubt the houses will look the same at the multiplexes. If he wants and gets another chance at Poirot I'd recommend that Branagh not go for the pre-sold titles but look for stories that have not been filmed as theatrical features. His Murder is not a bad film by any means, but in the end it did nothing to make me forget the Lumet film or what I knew to expect from the Christie mystery. But as someone who remembers a 43 year old movie fondly, perhaps I wasn't this film's target audience. Maybe those who know nothing of Agatha Christie or Sidney Lumet are the ones who'll rightly decide this film or this franchise's fate.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

THOR: RAGNAROK in SPOILERVISION

Taika Waititi is a cinematic miracle worker. His What We Do in the Shadows is not only the funniest vampire comedy ever made, which isn't much of an achievement in itself, but one of the funniest movies I've seen recently. His portrayal of vampires as almost childishly narcissistic apparently persuaded Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel Studios that Waititi could be entrusted with the next chapter of their absurd Asgardian soap opera after the disaster of Thor: The Dark World. That Waititi could work wonders on a limited budget didn't hurt either, though now, by comparison, he would have money thrown at him. Working from a screenplay by three other people, he's made the most imaginative and funniest Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) while demonstrating an aptitude for epic action on a colossal scale -- though as always with Marvel movies, one must wonder exactly how much of the set-piece action was planned out and rendered on computers before Waititi first called "Action!"

For all the spectacle, Ragnarok is character-centered, reiterating more strongly the premise implicit since the beginning that Thor (Chris Helmsworth) and his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are a couple of spoiled brats of frighteningly immense power. This is re-established early as Thor, after thwarting the demon Surtur's scheme to initiate Ragnarok, the foredoomed fall of Asgard, quickly clears up the one dangling plot thread from Dark World, exposing Loki's impersonation of All-father Odin (Anthony Hopkins finally has some fun imitating Hiddleston) and overthrowing the self-indulgent trickster, who had placed the old man in a since-demolished retirement facility in New York City. Their arrival in Manhattan to claim Odin sets up the encounter with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) previewed in the epilogue to Strange's own origin film. The Strange scene shows Waititi's hand most plainly in the disorienting way the Master of the Mystic Arts teleports Thor all over his sanctum in a succession of jump cuts. The good doctor sends them off to some cliff where Odin has been waiting, before dying, to tell his boys that their elder sister Hela, goddess of death (Cate Blanchett), will be released from her prison upon his imminent demise. In other words, the grown-ups are taking over, as Hela, who grows an antler-like crest in combat mode, breaks Thor's favorite toy, his Uru hammer, and boots both him and Loki off Bifrost bridge en route to Asgard, where she promptly slaughters the Warriors Three (Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson and the other guy) on her way to the throne, while the boys tumble to parts unknown. I'm sure this perfunctory dispatching of three favorite supporting characters from the comics will annoy some people, but it really was a waste of time having Asano and Stevenson keep showing up for how little the films have used them. As for the other supporting players, Sif is AWOL (the actress has a regular gig elsewhere) while Heimdall (Idris Elba) conveniently went underground when "Odin" started acting weird, forcing the king to appoint the mediocrity Skurge (Karl Urban) as guardian of Bifrost. Skurge survives Hela's initial onslaught to give the villainess someone to whom she can tell the secret history of Asgard and offer the job she held under her father as Executioner of the ruler's will and enemies.

A film within the film now begins as Thor crash-lands on Sakaar, better known to comics fans as "Planet Hulk" but ruled here by the self-styled Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) on bread-and-circus principles, with emphasis on circus. Big G relies on slave hunters like Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) to recruit talent for his gladiatorial games. He agrees with her assessment that Thor, rendered tractable by a classic sci-fi pain device, will make a good contender for his "incredible champion," whose identity was revealed in trailers long ago. Loki has ended up here as well, but is content to make money betting on Thor to lose. For his part, Thor has recognized Scrapper 142 as a Valkyrie -- for all intents and purposes, the Valkyrie or just plain "Valkyrie" -- one of a long-gone cohort of Asgardian women warriors, and apparently the sole survivor of an attack by Hela during her uprising against Odin. There's no hope of Thor pulling rank, however, since Scrapper/Valkyrie has grown cynical and alcoholic in her attempt to forget the loss of many close comrades-in-arms. But the situation isn't as hopeless as it looks, since Thor's powers over thunder and lightning prove innate rather than hammer-based, though it takes the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) nearly beating him to death to realize his potential. Ol' Greenskin has been on Sakaar since we last saw him in Avengers: Age of Ultron and has come both to like it here and to express his liking. Waititi and the writers give us a classically stupid Hulk (he had one of his increasingly common intelligent periods in the original Planet Hulk comics) with an almost-Trumpian insistence on taunting and "winning" regardless of appearances. Fans of the character will regret the wasting of one of Hulk's best-regarded storylines as a subplot to a Thor movie, but as Ruffalo himself has conceded that we'll probably never see another Hulk solo movie this is probably as good as it'll get for Marvel's Hulkamaniacs.

Thor's challenge now is to rally his three most likely collaborators into teaming with him on a breakout and reconquest of Asgard. Valkyrie would rather drink and forget, Loki is still out for himself and Hulk actually likes it on a planet where he's beloved by fight fans and hasn't had to turn back to Bruce Banner for ages. Those of you who found the buildup of a Hulk-Black Widow ship in Age of Ultron icky will be annoyed to learn that that's still a thing and key to Banner finally reappearing after Thor's own efforts to use Natasha's calming spiel fail miserably. The other pieces soon fall into place and we're finally on our way to a spectacular showdown in Asgard, assisted by Heimdall and, eventually, Skurge, whose machine-gun fetish allows him to recreate the comics character's classic last stand in Walt Simonson's 1980s comics, which are acknowledged in the end credits and regarded by fans as the best Thor stories since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's time. A lot of undead minions are wasted, Hulk fights a big dog, and Thor hits Hela with "the biggest bolt of lightning in the history of lightning," but the film still hasn't hit 11 yet....

While most of Ragnarok is generic Marvel spectacle on paper, on screen it benefits from Waititi putting a fresh set of eyes on it. As the Doctor Strange sequence shows, the style he developed collaborating on What We Do in the Shadows was not entirely homogenized into the Marvel machine, and that helps make the new Thor feel fresher than, say, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both films may share a retro sensibility in their soundtracks -- as do most recent Marvel movies, it seems -- but Ragnarok creatively enhances that retro feel with original music with hints of video-game soundtracks from Mark Mothersbaugh and a pictorial sensibility, assisted by cinematographer Javie Aguirresarobe, reminiscent of vintage van murals or Heavy Metal magazine covers come to life. The acting is a mixed bag, and a lot of it may disappoint people who expect something more like, as Tony Stark would say, Shakespeare in the Park from a Thor movie. Helmsworth and Hiddleston are fine, but as Hela Cate Blanchett arguably doesn't chew the scenery enough, or as much as one might expect from a barnstormer like her. You might have expected Galadriel with the Ring on, but she sometimes sinks to the overall glib level of the dialogue, referring to Odin as "Daddy," for instance. By now, of course, we should be reconciled to not getting authentic Stan Lee-style rodomontade from Marvel movie villains, but if you were going to get away with it in any Marvel movie, this was probably it. These are action movies anyway, and Hela's actions (both Blanchett's and uber-stuntwoman Zoe Bell's) speak louder than her words. As for the other villain, Jeff Goldblum gives, to no legitimate surprise, a Jeff Goldblum performance as the Grandmaster that makes that Elder of the Universe more capricious than truly threatening, but his participation in the interlude doesn't require him to be truly evil or scary. For all Waititi's efforts to maximize the comedy in the story, Ragnarok was only ever going to be an action spectacle, and the fact that he succeeds on that level gives us more cause to look forward to whatever he does next, for Marvel or on his own.